Cotton is a natural fiber harvested from the cotton plant. It is one of the oldest fibers under human cultivation, with traces over 7,000 years old recovered from archaeological sites. Cotton is also one of the most used natural fibers in existence today, with consumers from all classes and nations wearing and using it in a variety of applications. Thousands of acres globally are devoted to its production, whether it be new world cotton, with longer, smoother fibers, or the shorter and coarser old world varieties.
This plant is in the mallow family and produces delicate, lovely flowers. Other members of the mallow family include hollyhocks and hibiscus, used to brighten gardens all over the world. The cotton fiber forms around the seeds of the plant and is designed to help carry the seeds long distances on the wind so that the plant can distribute itself. Early humans realized that the soft, fluffy fibers might be suitable for textile use and began to breed the plant, selecting for fluffy, easily spun varieties.
After harvesting, cotton must be combed to remove the seeds. This used to be a laborious process until the invention of the cotton gin, which quickly separates the seeds from the fiber and combs them for spinning. While a single fiber is not terribly strong, when multiple curling fibers are straightened and twisted together, they form a strong, smooth thread that can be knitted or woven, as well as dyed.
Cotton is somewhat flammable, especially lighter ones that hold a lot of air. Some is chemically treated to reduce flammability. Many cottons are also blended with other natural fibers, such as linen, for particular properties, or to add texture and strength to the fiber. The fiber can be woven or knitted. It can also be turned into flannel, corduroy, muslin, and a variety of other fabrics used so universally that the American Cotton Council uses “the fabric of our lives” as a tag line.
This material also carries environmental controversy, particularly in the developing world, where dangerous pesticides are heavily employed. Cotton is subject to infestation, and therefore many growers heavily douse the plant in pesticides that are harmful to human and animal health, as well as herbicides to eliminate competition for resources. A number of producers also genetically modify the plant, which many outside the industry view as a questionable practice. Cotton also has very large water requirements, which may place stress on nations with limited water resources. In the late 20th century, there was a push for organic, sustainable cotton grown and harvested without the use of pesticides and human exploitation. It is significantly more expensive than conventionally farmed varieties, however, and may not be practical for most consumers.